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What are Psychomotor Skills?

psychomotor skills

When you think of psychomotor development, you might think of children progressing from a helpless infant with limited cognitive and motor skills to a full-fledged young adult who can fully fend for themselves. 

Yet, psychomotor development and the acquisition of psychomotor skills aren’t things reserved just for infants and children. Instead, psychomotor skills can be acquired throughout the lifespan.

Essentially, psychomotor skills are movement tasks that require both cognitive and motor processes. These processes, in turn, often lead individuals to learn about the environment around them and be able to manipulate that environment.

For example, a child that is learning how to hit a baseball off of a tee is developing hand-eye coordination that allows them to contact the ball with the bat. Through practice, the child evaluates how the bat and ball interact – if they swing and miss, they evaluate the swing path of the bat and adjust the height of their swing accordingly, such that they can contact the ball.

Though this is a simplistic example, it illustrates how cognition (evaluating the bat path) and motor skills (the finger, hand, wrist, arm, and other body movements to swing the bat) are used together to achieve a particular result.

In organizational psychology, psychomotor skill development is hugely important.

For example, if, as an organizational psychologist, you create a new workflow for a factory worker and change the way they interact with machinery, that employee will have to learn new body movements. Though the situation is different from the previous example, ultimately, the process is pretty much the same – the employee will have to practice, interact with the machinery within the new workflow, evaluate their movements and coordination, and adjust those movements to achieve the desired result.

But how does this all occur?

How are Psychomotor Skills Developed?

How are Psychomotor Skills Developed?Classic research by Paul Fitts and Michael Posner demonstrated that people progress through three stages as they learn psychomotor skills

  • Cognitive Stage
  • Associative Stage
  • Autonomic Stage

The cognitive stage is characterized by extremely awkward movements. In this stage, people learning a new skill rely on their existing knowledge to try to develop a “big picture” of what needs to occur.

For example, the factory worker in our previous example might move in stops and starts as they learn the new process for interacting with machinery on the factory floor. These halting and inconsistent movements are the result of learning a new task – and needing more practice to do so.

At this stage, the factory worker can observe fellow workers who have mastered the new workflow, get instruction from their supervisors, or even receive instructions from an organizational psychologist. All that information is collated into a body of knowledge that will help them work towards making the correct movements in the right sequence.

The cognitive stage might be best thought of as a period of huge gains in the performance of psychomotor skills, yet the results are inconsistent. Think of a child learning how to write their name – you might see letters that gain much better form, yet the letters might not be in the correct order. 

The movements required to complete a new psychomotor task don’t become automatic until the second stage of psychomotor skill development – the associative stage.

This stage is characterized by the conscious performance of the task with much less verbal instruction, yet with small performance gains. Movements might still be inaccurate, disjointed, or awkward, and the sequence of movements of a psychomotor skill might take a long time to finish. In other words, the associative stage is all about learning how to perform a new psychomotor skill. Think of the cognitive stage as learning what to do.

Using our handwriting example, the associative stage might see the child learning how to string together the precise fine and gross motor movements necessary to write in fluid cursive. The results the child sees will not be perfect by any means, but through much practice, there will be small improvements that will form the basis for accommodating the necessary growth of cognitive and motor skills in the next phase – the autonomous stage.

This final stage of psychomotor skills development is all about refinement. Not only does someone in this stage develop automatic motor processes, but their cognitive output to complete a psychomotor task is also minimal.

In our handwriting example, a child in the autonomous stage will eventually gain the ability to write fluidly without having to think purposefully about what motion they need to do next or what a letter looks like in cursive.

Likewise, the child will have a nice, fluid motion that allows them to write words, sentences, and paragraphs in cursive without long pauses or corrective measures.

Now, it’s important to note that these autonomous processes don’t occur at the beginning of the autonomous stage – you don’t enter this stage and automatically have mastery of the skill.

Instead, the autonomous stage can take days, weeks, months, or even years to complete, depending on the skill.

As noted earlier, these stages are most commonly associated with children as they acquire psychomotor skills. Industrial-organizational psychology, however, also deals with these skills, particularly related to how people within businesses and organizations learn how to do new things.

Let’s go back to our factory worker example for a moment to illustrate this point.

Given a new workflow and procedure for interacting with machinery on the factory floor, a worker might spend several days progressing through the cognitive, associative, and autonomous stages. What they need to do with their left hand and their right hand, the manner in which they need to press buttons on a machine, or the order in which they work with a machine to build a product will simply take time to master. 

This is why there’s a learning curve when people start a new job – they are working through the stages of psychomotor skills until, at last, they have mastered those skills through much practice.

The Psychomotor Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy dates from a 1956 publication by Benjamin Bloom written along with colleague David Krathwohl. In The Second Principle, Leslie Owen Wilson, Ed D., notes that theories on the Psychomotor taxonomies developed out of the work of the two authors on the cognitive and affective taxonomies, the latter of which was developed in 1964. The work underwent a major revision in 2001.

The psychomotor domain is sometimes referred to as the kinesthetic domain and differs significantly from a purely cognitive learning domain where the psychomotor skill set was first described. Physical activities used to support either cognitive or affective functions are not skills that may be labeled purely psychomotor. To label skills as psychomotor, they must clearly have an educational intention whereby some type of growth can occur with repetition.

The Psychomotor Domain

The Psychomotor DomainBloom’s Taxonomy of the psychomotor domain indicates that seven basic skills are part of the psychomotor domain. Listed from the simplest to the most complex, they are:

  • Perception or awareness
  • Set
  • Guided response
  • Mechanism or basic proficiency
  • Complex overt response
  • Adaptation
  • Origination

While each of these skills are different, they share in common the need for both cognitive and motor skill development. Each also requires practice or experience to master.

For example, perception involves the use of one’s senses to guide and direct motor activity. Upon pushing a button on a new work console for the first time, a worker might discover that it requires more force than they initially thought to fully depress the button. So, two things have happened. First, the worker takes in the new information that “I must press the button harder,” and then they exhibit the adapted motor activity of pressing the button harder next time as a result.

More complex tasks involve the acquisition of new information and the adaptation of motor activity as well.

For example, the most complex of skills, origination, involves developing new motor activities to address a specific problem. So, for our factory worker, they might use their newfound psychomotor skills to improve upon the workflow even further. This improvement is original, based on their experience, and results in a better outcome. Again, we see the dynamic of cognitive processes and motor activity play out.

But what about the other skills in the psychomotor domain? Here is what you can expect:

  • Set involves a readiness to act. One is ready to act because they have developed mental and physical dispositions, as well as emotional dispositions, that allow them to respond to differing situations.
  • Guided response refers to the early stages of learning a complex skill. A lot of imitation is involved, as is a lot of trial and error. This skill involves a lot of practice as well.
  • Mechanism or basic proficiency refers to the middle stages of learning a new complex skill. While the learned response has become automatic at this point, the movements required may not be completely proficient.
  • Complex overt response involves proficient performance of a psychomotor skill. The skill is not only performed quickly, but is also highly accurate. Additionally, the performance of the skill is highly coordinated – it looks and feels as though the person performing the skill is an expert.
  • Adaptation involves the ability to modify psychomotor skills to address novel situations.

If we take anything from this discussion of the psychomotor domain, it should be that the process of acquiring these skills can be a very long and laborious process. 

That said, there are many different factors that affect the timeline of acquiring a new psychomotor skill.

What Factors Affect the Development of Psychomotor Skills?

While we can discuss psychomotor skills in general, the specific amount of time required to master a new skill depends on a very wide range of factors.

First, we have to account for individual differences. Where one person might master a new skill in the workplace, another person with similar experiences and abilities might take much longer to master the same skill. 

Second, our past experiences must also be taken into account. Obviously, a worker that has some experience in making complex movements to complete a task is more likely to pick up a new set of complex movements in shorter order than a worker with no experience. 

Another component of past experience is the amount of practice a person has done. Michael Jordan might be the greatest NBA basketball player of all time, but it wasn’t necessarily because he was the most talented. Instead, he practiced – a lot – and that practice paid off.

Other factors to consider when learning a new psychomotor skill include:

  • Psychological feedback, or the sensory, emotional, or cognitive information you glean from practicing a new skill.
  • Task complexity, or how cognitively or physiologically taxing the task is.
  • Work distribution, or the relationship between practice and rest, length of practice sessions, and so forth.
  • Motive-incentive conditions, or the combination of motivation and learning that compels one to act.
  • Environmental factors, which might include anything from temperature and humidity to the brightness of lighting to the physical space in which a person is working on a new skill.

How These Skills are Used in Industrial-Organizational Psychology

How These Skills are Used in Industrial-Organizational PsychologyThe Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology infers that psychomotor skills may be used to influence different areas of business.

For example, when training and developing new employees, taking note of their ability to learn new psychomotor skills can inform the specific job tasks for which they are a best fit.

As another example, industrial-organizational psychologists can utilize the principles of psychomotor development to help improve the structure of employees’ workspaces and the quality of their work life.

Additionally, psychomotor skills can be used to improve:

  • Recruitment, selection, and placement of employees
  • Measuring the on-the-job performance of employees
  • The development of motivation and reward systems for employees
  • Organizational development from top to bottom

As we continue to learn about how our brains and bodies learn and retain information, those in the field of industrial-organizational psychology will continue to explore how psychomotor skills can enhance memory and aid in the acquisition of new business skills. What’s more, industrial-organizational psychologists can utilize that information to improve the work experience, the work environment, and make employees more productive while improving safety at the same time.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated January 2022

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